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An Audit Report on the Texas Education Agency's Investigation of the El Paso Independent School District

August 2013

Report Number 13-047

Overall Conclusion

The Texas Education Agency (Agency) failed to perform a thorough and effective investigation of serious cheating allegations in the El Paso Independent School District (EPISD). At the direction of the U.S. Department of Education, the Agency investigated allegations made by an elected official from the El Paso area of wide-ranging cheating in El Paso schools designed to circumvent federal No Child Left Behind requirements. After the Agency concluded in 2010 that the allegations of cheating could not be substantiated, two independent investigations confirmed that widespread systemic cheating had, in fact, occurred.

The Agency's investigation was significantly deficient in several areas. Specifically:

- The Agency neglected to investigate all of the cheating allegations.

- The Agency did not travel to El Paso or attempt to interview individuals with knowledge of the cheating schemes, including EPISD staff, an elected official who had filed a written complaint, parents, or students.

- The Agency conducted only a desk review and relied primarily on self-reported information submitted by EPISD.

- The Agency disregarded certain sources of specific, credible information that substantiated the cheating allegations.

- The Agency did not dedicate sufficient resources to its investigation of EPISD and assigned primary responsibility to only one investigator.

In addition, Agency management failed to provide oversight of the investigation, with no member of management reviewing or approving the investigation's scope, approach, procedures, or findings.

The Agency lacks a consistent and effective process to conduct investigations concerning manipulation of federal accountability data.

The Agency does not have sufficient processes and controls in place to effectively identify and investigate possible noncompliance with school accountability requirements. Specifically:

- The Agency's reliance on investigations that school districts and charter schools perform increases the risk that systemic cheating will not be identified.

- The Agency does not analyze data that could identify systemic cheating.

- Several high-level Agency administrators stated that it was not their responsibility to identify and analyze information that may indicate systemic cheating designed to circumvent federal accountability requirements.

- The Agency does not have a process for employees to report monitoring observations, questionable practices, possible cheating, or other concerns to Agency staff who may be able to initiate investigations. In the months preceding and during the Agency's investigation of EPISD, staff in separate Agency divisions received inquiries and anonymous complaints that were individually considered insignificant but in the aggregate could have raised flags of serious and pervasive deficiencies at EPISD.

The Agency's policies regarding anonymous complaints deter individuals from reporting cheating.

The Agency does not investigate anonymous complaints except in specific instances, such as when complaints allege violations of test security requirements. While that policy is intended to discourage frivolous and excessive complaints, it also results in the Agency not investigating serious complaints from witnesses who do not want to be identified because they are fearful of retaliation. This was the case for many individuals with knowledge of the cheating schemes at EPISD.

In addition, the Agency lacks an effective complaint management system. Agency-wide monitoring of complaints is a time-consuming, manual process. Agency management does not have a centralized system that it can use to monitor and analyze complaints for potential problems or trends. As a result, the Agency may not address serious complaints in an appropriate or timely manner.

Summary of Key Recommendations

The deficiencies in the Agency's investigation of the systemic cheating that occurred in EPISD reflect the overall weaknesses in the Agency's processes for investigating noncompliance with school accountability requirements. Auditors identified several areas in which the Agency should strengthen those processes. All specific recommendations related to the audit findings in each chapter are listed in Chapter 4 in the Detailed Results section of this report. Some of the key recommendations include:

- The Agency should create an office of complaints, investigations, and school accountability and appoint a senior executive officer to oversee that office. The senior executive officer should approve key decisions related to the overall investigative function, as well as individual investigations.

- The Agency should ensure that it allocates sufficient resources to school accountability investigations.

- The Agency should modify its policies so that it accepts anonymous complaints related to school accountability.

- The Agency should establish an effective automated complaint tracking system.

- The Agency should analyze data it maintains to identify potential systemic cheating designed to circumvent No Child Left Behind requirements.

- The Agency should develop and implement written policies and procedures to:

- - Follow professional standards in performing its investigations.

- - Require investigators to contact and interview individuals identified in complaints selected for investigation.

- - Assess and verify the information (including data and documentation) that it intends to use as evidence for investigative findings.

- The Agency should submit a report on completed investigations to the Governor's Office and substantive legislative committees.

- The Agency should develop a process for sharing information related to school accountability across Agency divisions.

- The Agency should establish an internal hotline and email address to allow Agency employees to anonymously report concerns about violations of school accountability.

- The Agency should ensure that its Web page clearly directs how parents, teachers, school district employees, and members of the general public can report to the Agency issues related to school accountability.

Contact the SAO about this report.

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